WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Commercial ships traversing the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean should be armed to defend themselves against marauding Somali pirates because international warships can’t do the whole job and won’t be there forever, a top U.S. Navy admiral said on Thursday.
Seaborne gangs of pirates have stepped up hijack attacks on vessels in recent months, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including tankers, despite the presence of dozens of foreign naval vessels.
“We could put a World War Two fleet of ships out there and we still wouldn’t be able to cover the whole ocean,” said Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe and Africa, citing attacks from the Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel to off the coast of India.
Overwhelmed by the scope of the maritime problem, the United States has called for a greater international-led focus on going after the pirate money trail.
Underscoring the financial impact of piracy, Fitzgerald said he was told by Kenyan officials that prime real estate in Mombasa and Nairobi were being “bought up by rich Somalis” who lead clans which control piracy syndicates. He cited a similar investment trend in Ethiopian property.
“The U.S. can’t go this alone,” he said.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Fitzgerald said it was “incumbent upon the vessels who are sailing the high seas to either protect themselves or accept the dangers.”
Asked if he would recommend that commercial ships arm themselves, Fitzgerald said: “I think they should.”
Some ships already have armed guards on board. Others are using protective devices to try to keep pirates at bay.
“Commercial ships should take appropriate protections ... because we cannot offer 100 percent guarantees of protection as the ships go through,” Fitzgerald said, putting the onus on the maritime industry to decide “how seriously they want to take this on.”
On any given day, between 30 and 40 international ships are involved in anti-pirating efforts in the Somali basin and the western Indian Ocean. That includes five to 10 American vessels, Fitzgerald said.
“Yet we’re still getting piracy incidents happening,” he said, citing the ability of the gangs to “adapt to our tactics” by shifting attacks to areas where there are fewer international patrols, such as near Seychelles or the Mozambique strait.
“I don’t think we can sustain the level of operation that we have down there forever,” Fitzgerald said, noting that the daily patrols were limiting the number of U.S. Navy ships available for other priorities.
“It tends to concentrate all of our fleet logistics in that one area,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d much rather be able to use those ships in other areas for doing other things.”
“It costs a lot of money to keep ships down there. It’s a lot of wear-and-tear on the ships themselves. And there are other things going on in the world,” he added.
The recent capture of five suspected pirates by the U.S. warship Nicholas, in the Indian Ocean west of the Seychelles, has put a spotlight on the thorny issue of how and where to try and jail Somalis who are taken into custody.
“Catch and release is not a very good option,” Fitzgerald said, noting that Kenya has decided not to take any more captured pirates. “How do we deal with this? We’ve got to come to some kind of solution.”
Fitzgerald said officials with the U.S. departments of State and Justice were trying to come up with a plan for those being held on the USS Nicholas.
Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Patricia Wilson and Eric Beech
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